A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 10, 2019

How Society Is Creating Innovations More Important Than Advertising Algorithms

Technology as an industry, especially in the US,  may now be focused on monetization. But in most of the world, it is increasingly being seen as a practical way out to a better life.

As such, innovations in the future may increasingly concentrate on solutions to socio-economic problems that offer scientific tools to optimize real needs. JL

Ashlee Vance reports in Bloomberg:

The Valley lost sight of technology as a tool. The notion of unlocking human potential faded, and tilted toward entertainment, filling people’s free time with diversions, and seeing how much money could be made off convenience. (But) people who were once limited by geographic isolation and poverty now aspire to sell products and services to the world.“There has been a big societal dislocation, where the idea of lifetime employment, trusting and relying on a big company is gone. People have been forced to be more creative and figure out things for themselves, and they have started self-organizing."
The scene played out much like you see on television, only scarier. It was May 2017, and a fight between young Palestinian men and Israel Defense Forces soldiers broke out on a street in Ramallah. A handful of troops were barricaded behind two military vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, and now and again the young Palestinian men would rush up, sling rocks at the soldiers, then retreat. This back-and-forth went on for 20 minutes before the youngsters grew more brazen, lighting a dumpster on fire and pushing it toward the IDF position. Standing amid other onlookers on a dry, scrub-covered hill about 100 yards away, I wondered what would happen next, when a flood of IDF soldiers appeared out of nowhere. They peppered the area with rubber bullets and charged the Palestinians and those of us on the hill. People ran for cover. The acrid smell of tear gas hit nostrils. Ambulances reversed in haste with bleeding rock hurlers inside.
I dashed from the hill and made my way through a few city blocks where people drank tea outside cafes and tried to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. My destination was Leaders, a kind of industrial park for startups, which had a banner day planned. Patrick Collison, the billionaire co-founder of the online payment company Stripe Inc., had come to Ramallah to speak with young entrepreneurs about his experience building a startup and about how technology could bring them economic opportunity. Dozens of people packed the conference room, many of them Arabs from East Jerusalem who needed to wait for several hours at security checkpoints to hear Collison. The red-haired Irishman began by apologizing for not speaking Arabic, then explained how he’d grown up in a rural setting and could perhaps relate to a feeling of isolation and the struggle to make an impact on the world. “There is that sense of comparative inferiority,” he said, recalling his own childhood in Dromineer, a village in central Ireland. “You are clearly much less significant than the bigger forces around you.”
More than a third of the attendees were women. One was the founder of a Middle Eastern online lingerie company, Kenz Inc., that counts Saudi Arabia as its largest market. Another worked as the chief technology officer for RedCrow, a service that alerts people to attacks and violence happening near them. One person everyone wanted to know was Dina Zabaneh, a connector who had her finger on the pulse of the Palestinian startup world and knew all the major players.
I spent a couple of days with Collison visiting startups and investors in Ramallah. Their stories were inspiring and heartbreaking. Some of their hardships—the violence, the walls and fences, the travel restrictions—were obvious. Others were not. Israel has banned 3G networks in the Israeli-occupied territories, which has forced people to develop smartphone apps on old technology and then head to hilltops to find a faster connection and to test how their services would work in the rest of the world. Money is hard to come by, too. Arab culture tends to favor traditional family businesses rather than high-risk startup ventures. While failure is celebrated in Silicon Valley, it comes with a real cost here both in terms of lowered social status and in making ends meet.
You might think being part of the 21st century tech gold rush would feel like an impossible goal under such conditions. And yet the people I met reminded me how technology can still inspire optimism. Wherever Collison went, young entrepreneurs pumped him for information, and you could see that they imagined they might end up just like him. They might make something that people in far-off lands would use every day. They might get ahead.
relates to The World Is Full of Innovation More Important Than Ad Algorithms
Australian biohacker Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow took his name from these glowworms.
Source: Hello World
For the past two years, I’ve visited technology hubs in places such as Palestine, Israel, China, Russia, Australia, Iceland, and Chile. The story is the same the world over. There’s a degree of Silicon Valley mimicry. But there’s also an impressive number of fresh ideas and approaches to sculpting the future. The monoculture that’s arisen in the Bay Area is being challenged by something new, diverse, and perhaps more powerful.
The energy overseas is reminiscent of what used to exist in the Valley. Dial all the way back to the early 1900s, and you find the San Francisco Bay Area already full of hobbyists pushing the limits of what radio, vacuum tubes, and other mind-blowing new technologies could do. They were followed by physicists, chemists, and electrical engineers who manipulated matter to make it come alive and think for us. And then came the builders—the people who created the vast, complex communications infrastructure on which the modern world runs. All of this bubbled up from what used to be known as “the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” because of its endless farms full of pears, apples, and nuts, and it did so in an historical instant.
The undercurrents of Silicon Valley’s hope and idealism still linger, though these concepts have been perverted. Somewhere along the way, the Valley lost sight of technology as a tool, or what Steve Jobs liked to describe as “a bicycle for the mind.” The notion of unlocking human potential faded, and things tilted much more toward entertainment, filling people’s free time with diversions, and seeing how much money could be made off convenience.
This didn’t happen all at once. The Valley felt a lot different after Netscape went public in 1995, ditto after the dot-com boom and bust a few years later. But for me, the Valley’s new, post-idealism era really took hold with the arrival of Google. The company had a noble mission of making the world’s information accessible to everyone, and it did a remarkable job at exactly that. People can now tap into an infinite stream of knowledge. But it’s what pays for all of this that feels like the underlying flaw of the modern Silicon Valley.
relates to The World Is Full of Innovation More Important Than Ad Algorithms
Peering inside a social robot from Sweden’s Furhat Robotics.
Source: Hello World
At their cores, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their peers are advertising companies. Their job is to design addictive services and have you spend as much time on them as possible. Your time, your data, your virtual self is the product. Many of the world’s smartest people have been funneled to the Bay Area to accomplish this with ever-increasing efficiency. This isn’t Don Draper trying to win over the public with a catchy jingle. It’s the greatest assembly of brainpower ever harnessed, aiming to pull you out of the real world into an invented one that’s measured and manipulated with shocking precision.
Even so, I think we’ve become too myopic in our haranguing of social media and search engines. These services are technology, but technology is much more—and it’s still as powerful a tool as ever. It’s just that Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where the future is being made.

Look at the aerospace industry. Rocket and satellite operations are popping up in Australia, China, Denmark, Israel, Japan, and New Zealand. Small teams of people are building things that used to require the resources of national governments. Similar shifts have taken place with transportation, as improvements in electric batteries and motors, software control systems, and artificial intelligence have given people the belief that their sci-fi dreams are possible.
The improvements in technology have been helped along by tools developed in Silicon Valley—especially cloud computing and open source software. And they’ve been accompanied by some promising social and cultural shifts, too. Take the case of Naomi Kurahara, a Japanese electrical engineer. In 2016 she founded a company called Infostellar Inc. that’s creating a cheaper way for satellites to deliver information around the world. In years past, Kurahara likely would have stayed in academia after receiving her Ph.D. or gone to work at a large Japanese tech conglomerate. Instead, she took a risk, formed a startup, and raised capital from investors while toting her newborn baby to pitch meetings and having him sleep in a box next to her. “I didn’t think much about it,” she says. “I’m a CEO and a mom. They’re both my jobs.”
One of her backers, Lewis Pinault of Airbus Ventures, has lived in Japan for many years and read far more into the moment. He’s watched the great Japanese industrial and tech empires struggle and seen the society adapt in imaginative ways. “There has been a big societal dislocation, where the idea of lifetime employment and trusting and relying on a big company is gone,” he says. “People have been forced to be more creative and figure out things for themselves, and they have started self-organizing. It was inconceivable years ago that someone in Naomi’s position would start a company.”
To its credit, Silicon Valley set the example for this. Its culture of unbridled ambition and the relentless pursuit of what others deem impossible is infectious and spreading. There are plenty of reasons to be frightened by this but, I think, many more reasons to be optimistic. It’s cliché now in the Bay Area for everyone with an app or online store to claim they’re changing the world for the better. Elsewhere, though, this belief carries real meaning. It certainly does in the labs in Jerusalem making artificial organs, and for the engineers in the Atacama Desert producing devices that pull clean water from the air, and for the scientists in Siberia working to generate clean energy from fusion. People who were once limited by geographic isolation and poverty now aspire to sell products and services to the world. The tolerance for risk, nurtured and perfected in the Valley, has made its way to new homes.
If fantastic riches got Silicon Valley off track, there’s a chance the rest of the world can shove it back. New voices can rise alongside new ideas, and people can form a new relationship with technology. To think otherwise is to believe far too much in the power of the algorithm over human agency and creativity.


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